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10 Biggest Disasters in the History of New York City

New York City has long been considered one of the greatest cities in the world.  The city was originally settled in 1624 when Dutch traders came to the area between what is now the Hudson and East Rivers and set up a colonial trading post.  While the city was under Dutch control, it was known as New Amsterdam.  The British gained control of the city in 1664 and named it New York after King Charles II’s brother who was known as the Duke of York.  After the U.S. gained independence, New York served as the U.S. capital from 1785 to 1790.

New York City has been the biggest city in the U.S. consistently since 1790.  New York attracts visitors from all over the world and it is a main cultural hub in the U.S., known for its cultural diversity and entertainment.  Major landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building are recognized by people around the globe.

While there is plenty to celebrate about a great American city like New York City, it has had its share of disasters and tragedies over the years.  As a leading provider of disaster restoration services in Staten Island and Brooklyn, NY, we feel it is important to revisit the major disasters New York City has experienced to learn from them and help make this city a safer place to live.  In this blog series, we will highlight some of the biggest disasters in the history of New York City including what caused these disasters, their aftermath, and how the citizens of New York City overcame them.

If you experience a natural disaster that has caused damage to your home or building, call ServiceMaster Restoration by Complete for disaster restoration services in Brooklyn and Staten Island, NY.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred on March 25, 1911 and claimed the lives of 146 people.  The women who worked in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory endured harsh conditions and long hours and the owners of the factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, showed a blatant disregard for the well-being of their workers.  In September of 1909, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) went on strike and the workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory participated in the strike.  The owners of the factory only gave into a few of their demands and had many of them arrested.

When the fire occurred toward the end of the workday, the doors to the staircase leading to the street were locked and the old fire escapes collapsed as women tried to escape the building.  As a result of this fire, the New York City Committee on Public Safety was formed and many new laws regulating working conditions were passed to shorten the workweek and create safer working conditions in factories.

Learn more in our blog about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

September 11 Attacks

The biggest disaster in the history of New York City shook the entire world and the reverberations are still felt to this day.  On the morning of September 11, 2001, two hijacked commercial planes crashed into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center just 17 minutes apart from each other.  Less than 2 hours later, both towers came down, spreading debris throughout southern Manhattan.  In New York City alone, the September 11 attacks resulted in more than 2600 deaths and countless injuries.  It took more than 3 months to fully extinguish the fires caused by the attacks.

The aftermath of 9/11 brought the passage of the PATRIOT Act and the Aviation and Transportation Security Act to try and safeguard the U.S. against future terrorist attacks.  The War on Terror also began shortly after 9/11 when U.S. troops arrived in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.  As of this writing, the U.S. still finds itself involved in the War in Afghanistan.

Learn more in our blog about the 9/11 attacks.

Hurricane Irene

Hurricane Irene started on August 15, 2011 off the western coast of Africa and lasted until August 29.  This storm hit the Bahamas and moved up to the northeast coast of the U.S., affecting 15 different states, causing $14.2 billion in damage and taking 58 lives.  Hurricane Irene topped out at a category 3 storm when it hit the Bahamas and it made landfall in New Jersey and New York as a tropical storm.

Throughout New Jersey and New York, Hurricane Irene caused rivers to flood, uprooted trees, knocked out power, and damaged homes.  The storm caused $1 billion in damage in New Jersey and displaced 6,000 residents.  In New York, the storm caused $296 million in damage, making it one of New York’s costliest storms.

Learn more in our blog about Hurricane Irene.

1977 New York City Blackout

The 1977 New York City blackout was a near complete blackout of the city that was caused by a series of lighting strikes on major power generators.  The blackout began on the night of July 13, 1977 when the lightning strikes on the Con Ed power generators overloaded the system and caused it to completely lose power shortly after 9:30 pm.

Darkness fell over the city immediately, disrupting public transportation, shutting down Wall Street, and stopping a baseball game at Shea Stadium.  The blackout also triggered widespread looting and arson on the streets.  Looters damaged more than 1600 stores and looted more than 100, and 45 stores were set on fire.  Firefighters responded to more than 1,000 fires and crowds threw rocks and other debris at firefighters and police officers as they tried to maintain order.  In all, more than 4,500 arrests were made.

The power was restored throughout the next day on July 14 and by the evening, the entire city once again had power.  The looting, arson, and vandalism caused an estimated $300 million in damage and many of the businesses that were damaged or looted never recovered.  As a result of the blackout, the electrical system was improved with better monitoring equipment and backup generators to help prevent another major power failure.

Learn more in our blog about the 1977 blackout.

Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy started as a low-pressure system in the Caribbean Sea on October 22, 2012 and dissipated on November 2 after making its way through the Caribbean islands and up to the Mid- Atlantic and Northeast U.S.  The storm caused $68.7 billion in damage and killed 233 people across nine different countries.  Hurricane Sandy was a category 2 storm when it made landfall in New Jersey and New York.

Major flooding occurred throughout the state of New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy made landfall, including the city of Hoboken and communities throughout Bergen County.  New York City itself was hit hard as Lower Manhattan was flooded by the East River and areas in Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island were also affected by the damage and flooding.  The storm also caused significant damage to the subway system in New York City.  Hurricane Sandy resulted in 43 deaths and $36.8 billion in damage in New Jersey and 53 deaths and $42 billion in damage in the state of New York.

Learn more in our blog about Hurricane Sandy.

Happy Land Fire

The Happy Land fire was a fire that occurred in a Bronx nightclub called Happy Land that resulted in the death of 87 people.  The fire was caused by an arsonist and occurred on the 79th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

The Happy Land nightclub was ordered to be shut down in November of 1988 due to numerous building code violations including the lack of a sprinkler system, fire exits, and fire alarms.  However, the club remained open and there is no record of the fire department following up on the violations.  During the early morning hours of March 25, 1990, Julio Gonzalez got into an argument at the club with his former girlfriend, an employee of the club, and was ejected around 3 am.  He returned to the club a short time later with a container of gasoline and started a fire at the bottom of a staircase that was the only way in or out of the club.  The fire spread quickly up the stairs, killing most of the people in the club.  The majority of the deaths were due to trampling and asphyxiation.

Julio Gonzales was arrested the following day and was eventually found guilty of 87 counts of arson and 87 counts of murder.  He spent the rest of his life in prison where he died in September 2016.  The owners of the building were not found criminally responsible for the fire because they tried to have the club shut down and the club owner, Elias Colon, evicted before the fire.  However, the building owner and landlord were found guilty of misdemeanor building code violations and settled a lawsuit filed by the families of the victims for $15.8 million in July 1995.  The building was demolished the day after the fire and the location where the building stood was renamed The Plaza of Eighty-Seven in memory of the 87 victims.

The PS General Slocum Disaster

The PS General Slocum was a steamboat that served as a passenger ship from June 1891 until June 15, 1904 when it caught on fire and sank while bringing more than 1300 people to a Locust Grove in the Long Island.  The tragic fire and sinking resulted in 1021 deaths which was the largest death toll of a disaster in the U.S. until 9/11 occurred.

On the morning of June 15, 1904, over 1300 members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Church, mostly women and children, boarded General Slocum to be taken to a picnic retreat in Eatons Neck, Long Island.  The ship headed up the East River by 9:30 am and a fire started in the Lamp Room shortly after the trip began.  It is unknown what sparked the fire, but it spread quickly because the Lamp Room was full of straw, lamp oil, and oil rags.  It took about 10 minutes for the captain and passengers on the ship to notice and react to the fire.

The General Slocum was poorly equipped to handle a disaster such as a fire.  The fire hoses on board were rotted, the lifeboats were inaccessible, and the life jackets were deteriorated.  The captain continued to keep the ship on course despite the fire, claiming that he did not want to spread the fire to buildings on the shore of the river.  However, staying on course fanned the fire and caused it to spread even faster.  The ship sank off the shore of North Brother Island in the Bronx and caused 1,021 deaths as those aboard either drowned after jumping into the river or burned to death on the ship.  For the next several days, bodies continued to wash ashore.

A federal grand jury indicted several people in the aftermath of the disaster including Captain Van Schaick and several employees of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company that owned the ship.  Captain Van Schaick was convicted for criminal negligence and the Knickerbocker Steamship Company was fined for failing to maintain safety equipment like fire hoses and extinguishers.  New federal and state regulations were passed to ensure that passenger ships had functional safety equipment.

Great Fire of 1776

The Great Fire of 1776 is one of three major fires that occurred in the city of New York.  This fire began on September 20, 1776 when New York City was occupied by the British during the Revolutionary War.  The fire burned through the night until the next morning in southern Manhattan, destroying nearly 25 percent of the city.

British General William Howe began a military takeover of New York City in the summer of 1776, first gaining control of Staten Island and Long Island.  General George Washington withdrew most of his troops from New York City upon realizing it was about to fall and asked the Second Continental Congress if the city should be burned to render it useless to the British.  This idea was rejected to save the city from harm.

British troops under Howe landed in Manhattan on September 15, 1776 and fought with what was left of the Continental Army.  Once the British gained control of the city, they confiscated the buildings used by the Continental Army for their use.  On the night of September 20, John Joseph Henry, an American prisoner being held by the British on the HMS Pearl, saw the fire begin at the Fighting Cocks Tavern.  The fire spread very quickly through the tightly packed buildings, and the dry weather and strong winds only made it worse.  An estimated 400 to 1,000 buildings were destroyed between Broadway and the Hudson River as the fire burned through the night.  A combination of changing winds and actions taken by the British and New York citizens stopped the fire.

After the fire, both the British and the Americans accused each other of starting the fire.  However, no arsonist was ever found, and no charges were ever filed for arson.  Because the British believed the fire was started by an Americans arsonist, they continued to occupy New York City under martial law.

1835 Great Fire of New York

The 1835 Great Fire of New York caused significant damage at a time when the city was expanding and becoming an economic power.  The fire began on the evening of December 16, 1835 and resulted in two deaths and $20 million in property damage which is equivalent to well over $500 million by today’s standards.

New York City grew significantly in the beginning of the 19th century as its connection to the Erie Canal allowed it to receive raw materials from the Midwest.  The city also established itself as a financial center as investment firms, real estate companies, and insurance companies formed and thrived.  The population of New York grew significantly, and the city expanded to cover more territory to the north.  However, as the city grew rapidly, the fire department was very slow to expand.

The fire started in a warehouse on Merchant Street near Wall Street and gale force winds caused the fire to spread quickly.  The fire department was not only understaffed, but also had difficulty stopping the fire because the East River and Hudson River, the main sources of water used for firefighting, were both frozen.  They resorted to demolishing buildings in the fire’s path to deprive it of fuel and the U.S. Marines were called in to supply gunpowder needed to destroy the buildings.  The fire was found to be caused by a burst gas pipe in the warehouse.

Around 13 acres of the city were destroyed, including an estimated 530 to 700 buildings.  The claims paid out to cover the damage put most of the insurance companies in New York City out of business.  When the damaged areas were rebuilt, buildings were made of brick and stone to be less vulnerable to fire.  The fire department expanded their ranks as a result of the fire and built a municipal water supply so they no longer had to rely on the rivers for water.

Great New York City Fire of 1845

The Great New York City Fire of 1845 is the third major fire that affected New York City in a span of 70 years, and it occurred only ten years after the fire of 1835.  This fire started in a factory that produced whale oil and candles and it spread across lower Manhattan, resulting in 30 deaths and $5 to $10 million in damage ($137 to $274 million by today’s standards).

The fire started on July 19, 1845 around 2:30 am in the J.L. Van Doren Oil Merchant and Stearin Candle factory in Manhattan.  It quickly spread to the surrounding buildings and by 3 am, the city alarm bell alerted the fire department.  The fire burned for just over 10 hours, spreading through lower Manhattan and destroying 345 buildings in the area that is now the Financial District.  When the fire reached a warehouse on Broad Street that was storing combustible saltpeter, the warehouse exploded, flattening the surrounding buildings.  By 1 pm that afternoon, the fire department had subdued the fire thanks in part to the recently completed Croton Aqueduct.

The fire of 1845 confirmed the importance of the building codes passed after the fire of 1835 to ban new construction of wood framed buildings.  The fire slowed down when it reached areas of Manhattan that were built after 1835 using masonry and stone.  The city of New York also created a reserve firefighters unit called the Exempt Fireman’s Company.

Call ServiceMaster Restoration by Complete for Water and Fire Damage Restoration

New York City has had an illustrious history and continues to be an economic and cultural hub in the U.S. and the world.  The city has experienced it’s share of disasters and tragedies, but the people of New York have been resilient in the aftermath.  While we hope that no further disasters befall the city of New York, we know that disasters do happen and they require a swift response.

At ServiceMaster Restoration by Complete, our experts are ready to respond to disasters involving fires, flooding, and storms in Staten Island and Brooklyn, NY.  We respond quickly with fire damage restoration to prevent serious damage to affected homes and buildings and we can respond to flooding and other related issues with expert water damage restoration.

Do not hesitate to call us 24 hours a day at (718) 524-3765 for emergency disaster restoration services in Staten Island and Brooklyn, NY.